There are probably two years in all of American history that enjoy instant popular recognition and association with specific events. One, of course, is 1776, the Bicentennial of which was celebrated four years ago on a national scale with great emotional and commercial fervor. Popular associations with this year are positive. The same cannot be said for the second memorable year, 1929. It is identified almost exclusively with the Great Crash of the stock market and the onset of perhaps the most emotionally and economically debilitating period in United States history, the Great Depression.
1929, because of the Great Crash, did not go unnoticed during the fiftieth year of its anniversary, however, although it certainly was not celebrated. Several television productions and considerable newsprint were devoted to the events of those terrible days in late October. Several books were published as well, most dealing mainly with the Crash. One might expect that these volumes would be commercially exploitive and devoid of sound scholarly research and value. Such has not proven true, however, at least in the case of Warren Sloat’s 1929: America Before the Crash. Sloat, who worked as a newspaperman for twenty years and has written for several national magazines, including The Nation, Ramparts, Commonweal, and the Saturday Review, has produced an engaging popular history of the year, and indeed of much of the early twentieth century, of real value to both the general reader and the professional historian.
A blend of social, business, economic, technological, and political history and biography centered around the celebration of the central popular event of that year, Light’s Golden Jubilee, 1929: America Before the Crash, although advancing no clearly defined thesis, provides the reader with a highly readable portrait of a not-too-distant period that will evoke the positive memories of older readers who lived through it and will fascinate younger ones who did not. By dealing with the year in its entirety with minimal treatment of the Crash, Sloat shows that the negative associations with this year, based almost exclusively on a single event, are not entirely justified.
To the initial surprise of the reader, there is bare mention of the October Crash, although considerable attention is devoted to its causes. This should not astonish one, however, for few in 1929 were prescient. In that year Americans had inaugurated a new president of international renown. A brilliant, cosmopolitan humanitarian, Herbert Hoover, had served his nation—and indeed the world—since World War I in a variety of key posts. He was openly committed to pursue a program of peace through disarmament, and his incumbency was welcomed not only by Americans but also by much of the rest of the world, especially Europeans. Until the last three months of the year, few would have anticipated that the halcyon days of the 1920’s were to be followed by the bleak ones of the 1930’s. Hoover, himself a successful businessman, although concerned about the orgy of speculation in the market, had a positive attitude towards the economy, and that prestigious journal, the Times of London, asserted that, at the time Hoover took office (March, 1929), “the strength and prosperity of his own country never stood higher.”
America in 1929 was therefore in the mood for celebration, not introspection, and the central national event of that year, at least before late October, was Light’s Golden Jubilee, the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp. The observance was more, however; it was a nationwide celebration of the tremendous technological innovations and business expansion that had significantly contributed to America’s emergence as a major world power. Applied science had radically changed the world in the previous half-century, and American business and the author of much of this transformation, Edison, stood as international symbols of the popular conviction that science was capable of producing an unlimited number of miracles which would make life easier and more enjoyable for all. The Jubilee culminated in the pilgrimage to Henry Ford’s temple to American technology, Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan, of five hundred of the most important people of the time. They came, on October 21, 1929, to celebrate the transference and reconstruction of Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory at Greenfield Village, to witness Edison’s reenactment of his discovery of the incandescent lamp, and to honor the celebrated inventor and promoter at a gala dinner at Ford’s re-creation of Independence Hall. (Ford had tried to purchase the original from the city fathers of Philadelphia, as he had so many other historical structures, but his offer had been refused.)
Structuring his book around this event which took place only days before the Crash, Sloat provides the reader with vignettes of the activities of many of those in attendance active in finance, business, public relations, politics, social services, and the arts and sciences in the months and years before October 21. He also discusses many American and foreign personalities who were not in attendance but who were central to the events, both national and international, of that year. Within these...
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